Leadership in a Ford Nation

Texts: Joshua 3:7-17 (the Israelites enter Canaan); Matthew 23:1-12 (servant leadership)

Should we care about the Ford phenomenon in Toronto? Come December, Rob Ford will no longer be Mayor of Toronto. When his successor John Tory is installed, Ford will go back to his old role as a City Councillor – assuming that his cancer treatment allows him to take the seat that he won in a west Toronto ward in last Monday’s municipal election.

Rob Ford became a worldwide celebrity in 2013 because of his abuse of alcohol and cocaine, his aggressive antics, and his racist and sexist remarks. We presume and hope that in 2015 he will no longer be Canada’s most infamous celebrity.

I am glad that Rob’s brother Doug Ford was narrowly defeated in his bid to become mayor in Rob’s stead. But I am alarmed that Doug got 33% of the vote, that Rob Ford was elected for the fourth time as a City Councillor with more than half of the votes in his ward, and that their 20-year old nephew Michael Ford was elected as a School Trustee with no qualifications other than his connection to his two notorious uncles.

Why do so many people overlook Rob Ford’s history of drug-fuelled aggression at home and in public, his inability to cooperate with others to accomplish much of anything as mayor, and his frequent racist and sexist comments? Why do they vote for him again and again?

When I was in Toronto after Thanksgiving, the cab driver who drove me to the airport told me that he supported Rob Ford because he does what he says he will do. For this cabbie, Rob Ford’s authenticity made up for his racist statements even though the cabbie himself was a brown-skinned immigrant from Pakistan

Rob Ford does what he says he will do unlike the hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes in today’s Gospel reading. Despite his many problems, he is authentic, and people like him for this. While I would never vote for him, I can understand some of this attraction.

So many other leaders disappoint us with hypocrisy or self-serving behaviour. We are angry, but not always surprised, when senators like Mike Duffy or premiers like Alison Redford get into trouble because of abuse of power.

I sometimes wonder if we focus on the petty abuses of our politicians because we despair of their ability to tackle the big issues like climate change, nuclear weapons, or poverty.

Ford’s ideas may be wrong-headed, but so what? As an example, in the 2010 Toronto election Ford said that he opposed new immigration to Toronto because the city couldn’t handle the people already living here. Lots of people say such things, of course, but they usually don’t win high office.

If through some magic Ford had gotten his way and 200,000 new people hadn’t settled in Toronto in the four years he was mayor, it would have led to economic crisis and social despair. In a capitalist society, cities, companies and nations either grow or they die.

Of course, Ford didn’t manage to stop the growth of Toronto, and it has survived his term as mayor even if his musings on subjects like immigration add to the burden of racism there. So what difference does it make who our leaders are?

Unfortunately, bad leadership often does cause harm. Last week, I watched a PBS documentary about the rise of ISIS, the ultra-violent Islamist movement that has captured large parts of Syria and Iraq and which Canadian jet fighters are now targeting.

The documentary showed how the violent repression of the Sunni Islamic minority in Iraq by the Shia Islamic government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki, who ruled from 2006 until this September, paved the way for the horrors of ISIS. The problems go back further than 2006 of course — to the blood-drenched governments of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and of Bashar Al-Assad in neighbouring Syria. The fact that all of these repressive governments have been supported at various times by the United States should also give us pause.

I am sure that Toronto will recover from the four years that Rob Ford was mayor. But I am alarmed when aggressive and muddle-headed people like Ford gain popular support simply because they are honest and authentic.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus argues that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is not an either/or statement, I believe. Our attempts to exalt ourselves often lead to humiliation, which is painful. But humiliation always carries with it the gracious possibility that we might also stumble into humility.

Rob Ford provides us with an illustration. No one in the world has suffered more public humiliation than Rob Ford over the past two years. Unfortunately, these humiliations have not yet opened Ford to the grace of humility. In his own mind, he remains the greatest mayor Toronto has ever had. But if the humiliations keep coming, which they surely will, Rob Ford might finally stumble into a new role as a loving servant instead of a puffed up fool.

The vicissitudes of life can open any of us to humility. This involves pain, which is why we often deny the humble truth about ourselves even in the face of terrible humiliations. The good news is that the joy found in accepting our humble condition always outweighs the pain of this acceptance. Humility allows us to better touch other virtues, such as faith, hope and love.

Jesus models service to others over exalted leadership. He reminds us that we are all children of God and utterly dependent on God for our healing.

Unfortunately, stumbling into the Grace of these truths does not mean that we will solve the problems of our city, church, or family. Jesus’ own servant leadership is not “successful” in worldly terms since it leads to the cross. But the cross reminds us that only in dying to our old way of life can we can rise with Christ to new life within the eternal heart of God’s love.

Our tradition does not speak with one voice about the value of humility and servant leadership. Today’s Old Testament reading in which Joshua leads the Israelites through the waters of the Jordan River into the Promised Land is not about humility. It is a tale of conquest, dispossession of the Canaanites, and Joshua’s own greatness.

Reading Joshua today alongside the Gospel raises in my mind the struggle in our hearts between the humble path that Jesus calls us to follow and the paths of glory.

Being a humble servant does not always lead to the glory we crave. But love, not glory, is our central value, and love is where the humble path leads.

And at the end of the day, and despite what people like Rob Ford might think, love is everything. As the poet said, the paths of glory lead but to the grave. On the other hand, the paths of humility lead us to love God and neighbour, which is the only sure source of joy in life.

Thanks be to God.


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